How Women Hold Key to U.K. Losing or Keeping Scotland

Joanna Hamilton-Rigg is the kind of voter who campaigners on both sides of the independence debate need to win over if they are to prevail in this month’s referendum on whether Scotland should leave the U.K.

The 35-year-old Edinburgh mother of two pre-school children is among the more than one in 10 women who are undecided about how they will cast their ballots on Sept. 18. While she is attracted to the nationalists’ offering of more accessible childcare and a more equal society, she’s also wary of Scotland going it alone after 307 years of union with England.

“I’d like to believe it will be a better country, but it’s not that terrible at the moment,” Hamilton-Rigg, an accountant on maternity leave with a 5-month-old daughter and 3-year-old son, said last week. “I feel women need to hedge their bets a bit more where men are more likely to take the risk.”

As Scotland enters the final days of campaigning, the race is on to attract the votes of women. While all major opinion polls point to victory for the No camp, they also show a narrowing of the lead and enough undecided voters to cause an upset victory for Yes -- with proportionately more women than men yet to make up their minds.

“The notion of risk is crucial,” said Robert Lineira, a researcher into voting behavior at Edinburgh University. “Women tend to be more risk averse than men. It’s much more difficult for women to make up their minds because of the risk. Women and men have a different relationship with politics.”

‘Comfortable Cliché’

A YouGov Plc poll for the Times and Sun newspapers published yesterday showed an increase in support for independence, especially among men.

The survey put the No lead among women at 13 percentage points while the Yes campaign was two points ahead among men. Eleven percent of female voters were still to make up their mind versus four percent for their male peers. A Survation poll for the Scottish Daily Mail last week put the No lead among women at nine percentage points compared with a single point for men, and 15 percent were unsure versus nine percent for male voters.

Lari Don, an Edinburgh-based children’s author and activist in the Women for Independence group, calls the idea that female voters are more wary of taking risks a “comfortable cliché” that’s not born out on the doorstep.

“It’s about a different sort of debate, a different sort of dialog,” said Don, 45. “Most women like to prod at a question for longer. Some are still looking for the answers. What implications are there for my children, for my neighbor’s children? Maybe women want a conversation, not an argument.”

Gap Narrows

The nationalists were boosted last week by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s performance in a televised debate against former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, who heads the anti-independence Better Together group.

The gap between the two sides narrowed after the Aug. 25 clash, with 48 percent backing the union and 42 percent wanting to break away, according to the YouGov poll. That six-point deficit matches the Survation findings and has narrowed from as much as 20 points last month.

Both camps have intensified their efforts at targeting women voters on the doorstep.

Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed an all-women public debate in Edinburgh last month.

“More and more women across Scotland are waking up to the opportunities that a Yes vote represents,” her office said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Ad Campaign

Better Together started a television advertising campaign aimed at female voters last week. The Yes campaign criticized it for being patronizing by suggesting women were stuck at home while their husbands had made up their minds. Better Together campaign director Blair McDougall said it was based on interviews and focus groups.

People say they want more information. While leaflets and brochures are dropping on doormats and both camps have websites full of documents, voters like Geraldine Murphy and Annabel Meikle say more could be done to get across the messages.

The arguments have focused on control of finances, North Sea oil and Scotland’s ability to keep the pound after the main U.K. parties ruled out a currency union. There’s also the future of the health service, maintaining free university education and whether Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent remains in Scotland.

Salmond accuses Better Together of scaremongering, while Darling says the nationalists are taking unnecessary risks by breaking up a successful country.

Information Gap

“Obviously, there’s plenty of information between a Yes vote and a No vote but I think people just aren’t informed enough,” said Murphy, 31, who runs a monthly women’s whisky club at The Pot Still pub in Glasgow and will back independence. “I was talking to one of my colleagues earlier on and she doesn’t feel informed enough to make a solid decision.”

That view was echoed by Meikle, 45, a whisky consultant in Edinburgh who plans to vote for Scotland to remain part of the U.K.

“We haven’t had a lot of detailed information,” she said. “We’ve had more broad sweeps of information and assurance that independence will be all right.”

At her home in a suburb of Edinburgh, Hamilton-Rigg said she’s moving closer to a decision and is more likely to support independence. First, she’s going to use her skills as an accountant to delve deeper into what each side has said about the finances of what would be Europe’s newest state.

“We’re getting bogged down in the same old issues, stuck on the currency and Trident and it’s become disproportionate,” she said. “Both sides have cherry-picked the figures and we need to get beyond that.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.